2014-01-17 / Nature

A Successful Wild Goose Chase

By Jack Kelly


Patient bird watchers succeeded in spotting the Barnacle Goose, rarely seen in this area, among a large flock of Canada Goose. (Photo by Dan Finizia ©) Patient bird watchers succeeded in spotting the Barnacle Goose, rarely seen in this area, among a large flock of Canada Goose. (Photo by Dan Finizia ©) Our little corner of the world often brings surprises to nature observers. Local bird watchers were recently alerted to the appearance of a rare European Barnacle Goose in the Brown’s Lane area of Middletown. The goose was feeding with a large flock of approximately 300 to 400 Canada Geese in a cornfield near Wanumetonomy Country Club; it was observed and identified by experienced bird watcher Jan St. Jean. Word of the discovery spread quickly through social media, and a number of wildlife enthusiasts from across the state flocked to the area. According to local birders’ recollections, the last report of a Barnacle Goose in the state was in January of 2007, and in 1998 prior to that.

When St. Jean first sighted the goose, it was close to the roadside and easy to view. However, the bird had no idea of its celebrity status and moved farther into the field and got lost among the larger Canada Geese. Arriving birders were left to search acres of fields with binoculars and spotting scopes in an effort to find the elusive goose. Unfortunately, flocks of Canada Geese kept arriving and swelling the number of fowl in the field, while other smaller groups were departing and flying less than a mile west to a nearby cove. Compounding the crowded situation, Mallards and American Black Ducks joined their waterfowl cousins in foraging for leftover corn.


Canada Geese are not known for graceful landings. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Canada Geese are not known for graceful landings. (Photo by Jack Kelly) I joined an ardent group of about 16 observers and was having great difficulty finding anything but Canada Geese. The more experienced onlookers gave me tips on what to watch for and possible behaviors that might assist me in locating the fowl. I have learned that the only way to be successful in birding is to follow the instructions and listen to the wisdom of those who have spent many years honing their own abilities.

The average Barnacle Goose has a body length of 27 inches, a wingspan of 50 inches, and weighs about three and one-half pounds. It has a white face, surrounded by a black head cap, bill, neck, and breast, while its body features dark plumage above and paler feathers below. The Barnacle Goose nests on cliffs in the Arctic during late spring and summer, and most members of the species make transoceanic flights to winter in Western Europe. In recent years, the breed has also increased its numbers nesting in Greenland and may get caught up with flocks of Canada Geese leaving for lower North America. It has a high-pitched, short, squeaky yelp.

The average Canada Goose has a body length of 30 to 48 inches, a wingspan of 50 to 61 inches, and weighs four to five pounds. As most readers know, this species is a common sight on Aquidneck Island year-round, with some non-migratory populations nesting in Newport County. Most of the island’s winter population is migratory, however, and nests and breeds across the interior of Canada and Alaska and the northern United States near ponds, lakes, rivers, and other wetlands. It calls with a familiar yelping honk.


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. As the persistent bird watchers scanned the numerous Canada Geese, they discovered one adult Snow Goose and two Cackling Geese that were mixed with the flock. These two species nest high in the Arctic and usually winter farther south. While these visitors were welcome sights, they are found in our area on a fairly regular basis.

One keen-eyed birder alerted our attention to the trees bordering the field, where two Red-tailed Hawks had taken up positions. One hawk was high in a tree on the southern perimeter and the other was watching from a tree on the western edge, adjacent to the golf course. The hawks may have been considering an attempt to pick off one of the smaller geese or ducks that were busy feeding. Eventually the hawks departed and were last seen winging west.

After 90 minutes of observation, three members of the monitoring group decided to check the cove adjacent to Burma Road to see if our target had flown there in one of the flocks departing the cornfield. Within 15 minutes, word came that our quarry was indeed in that area and being observed.

While driving to the cove I watched in amazement as hundreds of Canada Geese flew overhead in the same direction as I was traveling. Upon our arrival, the Barnacle Goose had moved and was swimming among thousands of Canada Geese and seemingly hundreds of duck species. All of the birds sought the open water and safety of the cove since many of the island’s ponds and wetlands were frozen over.

Again, the dogged birders set up scopes and took up binoculars while attempting to find our special visitor. A painstaking search moved across the cove slowly and methodically. After about 40 minutes, the Barnacle Goose was discovered swimming about 100 yards from shore, almost directly in front of our position. It was a fine example of its species, resplendent in the late afternoon sun and swimming along with five Canada Geese. The bird was totally unfazed as cameras clicked and observers pointed; it only seemed to be concerned with foraging.

As a novice bird watcher and wildlife enthusiast, seeing this rare goose was among the highlights of my limited experience. For more information on the location of the Barnacle Goose or for the latest sightings in our area, visit the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s website at asri.org or call 401-949-5454.

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